The Youth Climate Trial that has meandered through Washington’s court system has stalled for the moment.
The case, pursued by eight young petitioners and supported by attorneys from the Western Environmental Law Center and Our Children’s Trust, asserts that the state is failing to protect young people from climate change impacts, and that young people have a right to a stable climate under the Washington State Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine. King County Superior Court Judge Michael Scott has dismissed the case as of August 14. However, the plaintiff’s plan to appeal, so we don’t expect this to be the last word on the case. Read more about the legal background and the trajectory of the case: https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/washington
Despite the failure to compel state action, the case holds a number of lessons for climate advocates as we advance policies to reduce carbon emissions.
One of these lessons hinges on division of powers within state government. In dismissing the case, the judge agreed with the plaintiffs that “anthropogenic climate change caused by increased greenhouse gas emissions poses severe threats to our environment and requires urgent governmental action.” However, the judge elaborated that the plaintiffs should take their case to the state legislature, a nifty elected body imbued with the powers to solve the climate crisis. But for climate advocates who have pounded the Olympia pavement for years with little to show for it in terms of substantive action, the suggestion stings (recall last session when Speaker of the House Frank Chopp left climate action off the agenda for the session). The legislature has proved itself to be unwilling or unable to act on climate thus far.
This decision follows another court decision in winter 2017 striking down elements of the Clean Air Rule (CAR), designed by the state to regulate carbon emissions without new legislation. Similarly, the CAR decision cited separation of powers as a main justification in the decision, encouraging the legislature to create a new legal framework for reducing carbon emissions.
What does this mean for climate advocates? As we get pigeonholed into the state legislature as the main outlet for climate policy, we need new strategies to expand our influence and effectiveness in Olympia. We’ll need champions in both parties, and perhaps new legislative leadership, to bring carbon reduction to Washington.
The other major lesson of this case has come from watching the puzzling role of the Inslee administration. Despite being a vocal and effective public advocate for tackling climate change, Governor Inslee’s administration sought to have this case dismissed from the beginning. One of the plaintiffs had pointed words for the Governor on Twitter after the decision:
One might have thought the Inslee administration would have welcomed the case. A ruling in favor of the youth plaintiffs could have expanded the authority of state government to take direct action on climate change (perhaps greasing the skids for something like the CAR rule). A court case would also have put pressure on the legislature to address climate change — not unlike the way the McCleary decision forced a resolution on K-12 education funding. The broader lesson for climate advocates is that we still have a ways to go to make climate action a top priority, even among our political ‘champions’, and that just electing democrats is not sufficient on its own if we want to solve climate change.
At Carbon Washington, we’ve mostly been cheering for the youths and their attorneys from afar. These young people, and young people all over the world, deserve better than they are getting from all branches of state government right now.